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Space Technology Hall of Fame

1990

In the 1960s, NASA's Langley Research Center initiated an extensive research program to develop a method to reduce the incidence of aircraft tire hydroplaning, a condition that occurs during rainstorms when tires rolling or sliding along water-covered pavement are lifted away from the surface by the action of water pressure. Aircraft tire hydroplaning was considered the primary cause of uncontrolled skidding during inclement weather conditions. Researchers at Langley developed a successful method of cutting thin grooves across concrete runways, thus creating channels through which excess water is forced. and thereby reducing the risk of tire hydroplaning. In 1967, through efforts by both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, safety grooving became an accepted technique to improve commercial runways. Since then, hundreds of commercial airports around the world have been safety-grooved. The safety of the shuttle landings also prompted the development and use of this technology at NASA's own airports. 

The Kennedy Space Center's landing strip was safety grooved to provide the best landing conditions possible for the Space Shuttle (above right). Additional applications of this technology include the safety grooving of potentially hazardous surfaces such as interstate highway curves and overpasses; pedestrian walkways, ramps, and steps; playgrounds; railroad station platforms; swimming pool decks; slick working areas in refineries, meat-packing facilities, and food processing plants; and cattle holding pens. Of these applications, the greatest benefits may have been realized in the area of highway safety. Research has demonstrated that the implementation of safety grooving in potentially hazardous areas has reduced highway accidents during wet weather by approximately 85 percent. This technology also has been shown to restore pavement surfaces and extend their service lifetime by 5 to 10 years, thus saving enormous maintenance costs.
In the early days of NASA's space research, there was concern over problems of temperature control of non-rotating satellites. The side facing the sun would build up excessive heat, and the opposite side would become very cold, thus a serious threat to the survival of electronic and other spacecraft systems. To address the problem, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories invented the heat pipe as a passive (consumes no energy) heat transfer device where a working fluid alternately evaporates and condenses, transferring heat from one region of the tube to another. 

Applied to NASA spacecraft, this technology controlled the thermal extremes that could be so damaging to electronics and other systems. One of the earliest and best known commercial applications of this technology was for protection of the Alaska Pipe Line. A major technological concern was how to build a pipeline system that would not sink into the permafrost. The solution was a novel use of heat pipe systems to remove heat from the ground, maintaining the permafrost level during all conditions, and thus assuring the design load-bearing requirements of the pipeline. Subsequently, the Kennedy Space Center sponsored many studies whose objective was to develop commercial applications of heat pipe systems. Heat pipes are now regularly used to enhance the dehumidification performance of conventional air conditioners. They also are used in warehouses and supermarkets where controlled temperatures and humidity are needed to preserve perishable product quality. Significant energy savings are found in both these applications. Additionally, heat pipe technology can be found in solar heating systems, in the cooling of notebook computer processors, and in heaterless injection molding for plastics manufacturing.
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